After completing his ministry on earth, Jesus returned to heaven. He will be there until he comes back for the final stage of history. While we live our lives here on earth, what is Jesus doing? Is he simply enjoying being back with his Father, basking in heavenly glory?
No, our Lord Jesus is at work. His ministry on earth, and especially his suffering and resurrection, was the heart of the matter; but there is more work to be done. Jesus Christ has received glory and sits at the right hand of God, the almighty Father; but he is far from idle! He does work on our behalf; work that benefits us, as the catechism says in q&a. 49 and 51. In this lesson we will summarise this work with three key words, three “roles” our Lord has even as he is in heaven today.
Christ’s work is in heaven.
1. He is the King of his world
2. He is the Head of his church
3. He is the Advocate of his people
He is the King of his world
The Apostles’ Creed and the Heidelberg Catechism do not use the word “king”; the Nicene Creed does, when it ends the section about Jesus Christ by saying: “… whose kingdom shall have no end.”
The title “King” is a good starting point for understanding the work of Jesus Christ in heaven. In his three-year ministry Jesus had proclaimed the Kingdom of God. When Pontius Pilate had asked him: “Are you a king?” Jesus did not deny it; he said: “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:33-37a) In the prophecy of Psalm 2 about God’s Anointed ruler, the LORD says: “I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” (Ps. 2:6) When we use the name “Jesus Christ”, we proclaim that Jesus was anointed to be king; he is therefore King Jesus.
Jesus himself proclaimed his kingship at his trial, when he said to the Jewish court: “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power.” (Mat. 26:64) We hear Peter use the same expression, “at the right hand of God” in the sermons of Peter and Stephen (Acts 2:33; 5:31; 7:56), and find it in Paul’s letters. (Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1) This expression comes from the Old Testament. Psalm 110:1 says: “the LORD said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” This is kingly language. Picture it literally: conquered enemies are made to bow down so low, that the king can rest his feet on their backs. He has all the power; they must submit to him.
Another Old Testament picture that echoed in Jesus’ preaching is found in the prophecy of Daniel (7:13-14).
Behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a Son of Man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting kingdom,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.
When Jesus called himself the “Son of Man”, this is eventually what he pointed to: that he is the one who would come into God’s presence and receive the glory and power of a king. This prophecy was fulfilled when Jesus ascended into heaven. Seated at the right hand of God, he has dominion over the whole world. That is clearly stated in the prophecy from Daniel: all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. It is the language of Psalm 72: “May he from sea to sea, from the River to the ends of the earth.” (Ps. 72:8) Paul says that in Jesus’ name every knee must bow and every tongue acknowledge his Lordship. (Phil. 2:10-11) Jesus himself proclaimed that his rule includes everything: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” (Mat. 28:18)
In fact, the catechism says in q&a 50 that Jesus is the one through whom the Father governs all things. Anything in the purview of God the almighty Creator falls under the authority of Jesus Christ. More profound yet, all things were created by him and for him. (Col. 1:16) This shows that Jesus’ ascension is not a nice afterthought, but a key step in the history of the world. All of creation, the whole earth and even the heavens, were made with the purpose that the Son of God would rule over it.
Jesus Christ is in heaven, where he belongs. The Bible book of Revelation describes a marvellous vision in which Jesus is, as it were, crowned to be King. In Rev. 5, we see an important book or scroll—the book of the King—but nobody seems qualified to open it. It is like Excalibur from the legend, that sword stuck in a stone and only the true king could pull it out. In the vision of Rev. 5, the conquering Lion of Judah and Root of David steps forward, who also is the Lamb that was slain and came back to life—our Lord Jesus. And he is the only one who can open the scroll, and so officially become King. We read that all heavenly beings fall on their faces and sing songs of praise: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12) Greater glory cannot be given to anyone!
Now that the Lamb of God has brought his atoning blood into God’s presence and taken place on the throne, everything is right in heaven. And the earth, even though it is still waiting on the last step of renewal, is also in good hands. This is very good news. It is especially good news for the people who belong to Jesus, to the people whom he loves. That is why the catechism focuses especially on the work Jesus does for his church.
He is the Head of his church
The expression, “Head of his church”, comes from the Bible: Col. 1:18 and Eph. 1:23. It is closely connected to the idea of kingship. King Jesus rules over his people, just as your head rules your body and tells it what to do and where to go. While it is true that Jesus is King and Lord of all, he is the Head and King of the church in a special and wonderful way.
The catechism wants to know especially what he does for us: How does the glory of Christ, our Head, benefit us? (q&a 51) What does our King do for us, now that he is seated on his glorious throne? There is a two-part answer.
First, he pours out heavenly gifts on us, says the catechism. You may not think of giving gifts as part of the job of a king, but it is not that strange. When a king or general had won the battle, he would often parade into his hometown and generously give gifts to all the people who came out to celebrate. The king did not keep the spoils of war for himself, but shared them with the people. The idea of applying this to King Jesus comes directly from the Bible. In Eph. 4:7-10 we read:
But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Crist’s gift.
Therefore it says: “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had
also descended into the lower regions, the earth?
He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens,
that he might fill all things.
In this beautiful passage, Paul notes a verse in Psalm 68 that depicts a victorious military parade, using the words “ascended on high”. How well does that fit with the ascension of victorious Lord Jesus to heaven! And this conqueror hands out gifts, gifts of grace. Paul then continues to identify these gifts of grace very concretely: all that is done in the church through the work of apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, teachers, and anything else needed for the growth of the church to complete maturity.
You could say that this is the positive side of Christ’s work as our benevolent King. He blesses us richly with gifts from heaven. As we will discuss later, these gifts are delivered to us directly by the Holy Spirit, who brings Jesus and his kingdom very close to us.
Second, Jesus’ kingship has a negative aspect. The church is under constant attack by several enemies. It is the responsibility of a king to deal with these enemies, and so to protect the people of the kingdom. In the same way, King Jesus by his power defends and preserves us against all enemies.
Who are these enemies? God’s great enemy is evil personified in Satan, or the devil. He hates God’s kingdom and church, and will do anything to undermine it. The Bible describes him as a wild animal, a savage hunter: “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Pet. 5:8) The whole fallen world with all its structures lives in hostility against the Lord, and this often translates into persecution of the church and attempts to silence the Word of Jesus and kill his people. Another danger is perversion from within, when leaders in the church deliberately or unknowingly teach falsehood and distract and weaken the faith of God’s people.
These are real dangers. How hopeless would our situation be if we had to face the enemies on our own. “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing,” But Jesus is King, and he actively protects us. He keeps Satan on a leash. He encourages his people and gives them strength. His Word and Spirit become the armour that keeps us out of harm’s way. In many and wonderful ways, King Jesus directs the history of the world to the only right outcome: the restoration of all things and the salvation of his people.
In this way, q&a 51 characterise the work of Christ in two parts: he blesses us with gifts, and he protects us from enemies. A third element is found in q&a 49: Christ, our Head, will also take us, his members, up to himself. Where the head goes, the body goes; where the king leads, his people will go. Even though Jesus Christ is the glorious Son of God, he is also primus inter pares, the first among equals, one of us, human beings. His heavenly palace is not just for himself, but will be our home. “In my Father’s house there are many rooms; I go to prepare a place for you.” (John 14:1-2) What an incredible promise! Knowing this should give us a new, joyful perspective on our life. One day, we will live a blessed life filled with the glory of God; and look, Jesus is there already, paving the way for us. His glorious presence in heaven is a sure pledge that we will follow, and in a way it is as if we are already there; so that the catechism even says: we have our flesh in heaven.
He is the Advocate of his people
We have focused on Jesus as King over all and Head of the church. But there is another aspect to his work in heaven. Jesus is not only King but also Priest, the one who approaches God on our behalf. Jesus himself characterised this work by the word Paraclete, which may be translated as Advocate, Counselour, Comforter, or Helper. If you are in trouble with the law, you need someone to stand by you to advise, represent, and defend you. This Advocate is not just legal representation, but a loyal friend who uses his influence to personally seek what is best for you.
When God looks at his people, does he see people who have rebelled against him, who have messed up his good creation, who sin against him from day to day and undermine his good rule? It is hard to deny that. But right there, in the palace of heaven, is Jesus Christ our Advocate. He makes our case. Father, forgive them. Father, give them your grace and mercy, because they belong to me. Father, remember the perfect sacrifice brought on the cross and turn your frown into a smile. It is such a short sentence in the Catechism—he is our Advocate in heaven before his father—but it is an amazing truth.
Practically, it means that we can be hopeful and courageous even when we mess up—and mess up again. The Bible tells us that we should be honest about our sinfulness. If we claim to be sinless, we are clearly liars. But if we recognize that we are sinners, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 2:1-2)
Our Lord Jesus is in heaven at the right hand of the Father. There he enjoys the glory and bliss of heaven; but he is also busy on our behalf. He is the connection between us and God; he is our Advocate, and the one who represents our humanity in heaven. Life on earth with all its difficulties is bearable because everything is right in heaven, and that is where our identity and destination are eventually found.
Meanwhile, Jesus as our King keeps us safe from our enemies and blesses us with great gifts. We see those gifts at work in the church, as we grow together in faith and holiness, and very concretely as we serve each other. The greatest of all gifts is the Holy Spirit himself, “the other Paraclete”, who is with us on Christ’s behalf.
In q&a 49, the Heidelberg Catechism points out that a beautiful exchange has taken place. Jesus, who is one of us, has taken his place in heaven; it is a pledge, a promise of more to come. But meanwhile, the Holy Spirit, who himself is God, has come to us on earth; he is a counter-pledge, a promise back. Just as a marrying couple exchanges rings as pledge and counter-pledge, so heaven and earth have been married.The practical consequence of this is also spelled out in q&a 49. Since we belong to Jesus, who leads us into heavenly glory, that is where our focus should be. “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”
- What did Daniel prophesy about the Son of Man? (Dan. 7:13-14)
- For what purpose was the earth created according to Col. 1:16?
- What is the idea of Jesus as the “Head” of the church?
- What kinds of gifts does King Jesus pour out on his church?
- Against what enemies does he protect us?
- What work does Jesus do as our Paraclete, or Advocate?
Suggested Bible reading schedule
|Monday||Revelation 5. Why is the Lamb worthy to open the scroll?|
|Tuesday||Psalm 110. How does this psalm characterize the Priest-King of heaven? How do his people respond?|
|Wednesday||Psalm 72. What is the rule of God’s anointed King like?|
|Thursday||Colossians 1:15-20. What does it mean that Christ is the head of the church?|
|Friday||Colossians 3:1-17. When we seek the things that are above and set our minds on things that are above (v. 1-2), what does that mean practically?|
|Saturday||1 John 1:5 – 2:6. How should we view our sin? Why is it important to “know” Jesus Christ the righteous?|